International exchange of technology and information are playing key roles in shaping the district energy industry. Ever-Green Energy’s President and CEO, Ken Smith, reflects on a 2021 delegation he participated in to learn from innovators in Finland and the United Kingdom: “From the founding of our company, our success has been enhanced by the expertise of European leaders and technologies. This international exchange of ideas is a natural fit for our organization and industry,” Ken said.
The delegation, led by Governor Tim Walz, comprised of individuals from 30 businesses representing Minnesota’s medical technology, education, agriculture, and sustainability industries. Ken joined the environmental technologies group, which was focused on water, energy, sustainability, and policy.
Finland is a very innovative country. Despite being roughly the size and population of Minnesota, Finland has a large number of startup businesses. This puts them in a position where they need to seek larger international markets. The North American district energy industry (and many other industries) is already using technology invented in the Europe and Nordic countries for quite some time. They have proven to be reliable, efficient, and in some cases, only available from European manufacturers.
When speaking about these technologies, Ken distinguishes between hard and soft technology. Hard technology being the physical equipment and machinery used to build energy systems, whereas soft technology refers to the controls and modeling programs used to design and make these systems run reliably and efficiently. Within both categories of technology, there lies the opportunity for international collaboration, an exchange of information, ideas, and technologies on a global scale to help improve our energy systems and, in doing so, contribute to climate solutions.
As far as actually deploying these advancements in energy systems, in many ways Finland is leading the charge. Finland has set a goal to be fossil fuel free as a country by 2035. The use of district energy systems is playing a key strategic role that is enabling Finland to decarbonize at an incredible speed and scale. There has been a lot of investment to utilize previously untapped waste heat sources for their district energy systems from sources such as data centers, industrial processes, and wastewater.
Finland has also been increasing their use of heat pumps for individual buildings and more dispersed residential areas where district energy systems are not as practical.
“District energy networks will play a major
role in the decarbonization effort. It’s not the only path, but it certainly is a proven technology that can be leveraged for the future.”
– Ken Smith
The UK has ambitious plans to increase their district energy system infrastructure in order to accomplish their greenhouse gas emission reduction goals. London is a densely populated city and a very good candidate for utilizing district energy. Currently, the UK heats approximately 2% of their total heating load using district energy systems. The UK has a goal to use district energy to serve approximately 20% of the country’s total building heating needs by 2050. That’s an enormous growth rate.
Looking ahead, Ken shared, “As we move toward electrification and the use of heat pumps to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, heat storage will play a key role in the effort to decarbonize buildings and district heating systems. In the US, we have a lot of experience with chilled water storage, but much less with hot water storage. This will be something that will play a key role in the operations of future energy systems and another opportunity for a global exchange of ideas.”
In the US, the focus right now is mostly on updating existing systems. All across the country, steam-based district energy systems are being transitioned to hot water. Ever-Green has been a leader in these initiatives with projects like our work in Duluth, MN and at Oberlin College. In the near future, as more emphasis is placed on decarbonization and electrification of the building sector, it will be increasingly beneficial and necessary to follow the lead of our European colleagues by installing new systems as well to serve both existing buildings and new developments.
Overhauling outdated systems and installing new ones where applicable on a national level is a substantial undertaking. In reference to the scale of this sort of thinking, Ken said:
40% of energy used in the US goes to building heating and cooling. It’s the largest and, I believe, the most challenging wedge of what needs to be decarbonized. Some see district energy as an old, dated approach to heating and cooling buildings. But in reality, as we saw in both the UK and Finland, it is playing a critical role around the globe in the effort to decarbonize the energy system. Just because district energy systems have been used in cities and campuses for many years doesn’t mean they can’t be a way of the future. You could say that about the electrical grid – it’s also been around for a long time but it’s certainly not going away. If anything, the decarbonization of the electricity system is able to be leveraged by district energy systems to decarbonize the buildings they serve. They complement one another. New, modernized district energy systems are very reliable and efficient and able to be increasingly electrified. District energy networks will play a major role in the decarbonization effort. It’s not the only path, but it certainly is a proven technology that can be leveraged for the future.
These large-scale infrastructure improvements may seem daunting, but it is completely within our capability. All we have to do is look across the Atlantic and see the level of progress being made in Finland and the UK for a reminder that this is all, without a doubt, feasible.